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RTC TrailBlog

  • Billion$ of Benefits From Bicycles

    It's no surprise to cycling and trail advocates that getting people out of cars and onto bikes benefits everyone. What is surprising is the magnitude of those benefits.
    In the Midwest alone, if people switched to two wheels instead of four wheels for half of their short trips, the combined benefits to society from reduced air pollution and improved health from physical activity would exceed $7 billion a year, according to a study published last week in the prestigious journal Environmental Health Perspectives

    Part of this huge impact would come from the reduction in soot, ozone and other pollution created by cars taking trips of fewer than five miles. Less pollution means fewer people would die from heart and lung diseases--an estimated 1,100 fewer deaths per year in the region, according to the authors of the study. Another part of the benefit would come from the exercise that people would get from cycling regularly--resulting in reduced health care costs for chronic conditions such as obesity and diabetes.

    "Safe and convenient trails are crucial to help move communities in the United States toward the active transportation patterns seen in Europe," where it's not uncommon for half of all short trips to be made by bicycle or foot, says Kristen Welker-Hood, the new senior director of program for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. "This study demonstrates the ripple effect of building sustainable communities: We get cleaner air to breathe, healthier residents and more livable communities."

    Impressive as the $7 billion figure is, it likely underestimates the overall benefits of eliminating short auto trips in this region, because the researchers did not measure the savings that come from reduced auto usage, nor did they consider the climate benefits from reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps more important, the study focused only on one region of the country, so the combined benefits of getting more people on bikes nationally would be several times larger. 

    "Transportation accounts for one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, so if we can swap bikes for cars, we gain in fitness, local air quality, a reduction in greenhouse gases, and the personal economic benefits of biking rather than driving. It's a four-way win," says Jonathan Patz, director of the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and one of the authors of the study.

  • New RTC Director Reflects Expanding Role of Trails in Public Health

    From its beginning as an organization dedicated largely to building and promoting recreational trails, in recent years Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's (RTC) work has expanded to recognize the growing role of trails as urban commuter pathways, transportation networks for car-free families and low-income communities, and much-needed avenues for regular exercise and physical activity.

    To that last point, the health community recognizes that trails, sidewalks and bike paths are critical pieces of their effort to tackle a crisis of obesity and related illness, which costs many millions of dollars annually to treat, and kills thousands of Americans each year. An increase in sedentary lifestyles - a lack of regular activity, like walking and biking - is one of the root causes of obesity. The products of it are diabetes, respiratory illness, hypertension and heart disease.

    Strengthening our growing role in public health policy and strategy, RTC this month announced the appointment of Dr. Kristen Welker-Hood (right) as our senior director of program. Welker-Hood, an environmental health scientist and nurse, was most recently the director of environmental health programs and policy for Physicians for Social Responsibility, and has spent much of the past decade exploring how the built environment - the physical landscape of our cities and towns - impacts our wellness and lifestyle.

    "What drew me to RTC was its involvement in making safe and convenient trails available to a broad population, because that is critical to enabling people to pursue healthier lifestyles," Welker-Hood says. "Regardless of how much we want to be active, unless the infrastructure is there - the trails, the bike paths - we don't have the ability to commute by bike, or take walks around our neighborhoods."

    Welker-Hood says topics that what were once thought of as being infrastructure, planning or transportation issues, are now at the heart of the nation's most pressing public health crisis.

    "Transportation is the vehicle for everything to do with health," she says. "It has to do with how you get to your local grocery store, visits to the doctor, your ability to exercise, how your children play, how much spare time you have. As you look closely at the way our communities are built, often you see they have been designed in such a way that makes it difficult to be healthy."

    The justification for improving the health of all Americans is not just social, or moral. It's economic.

    "In just a few years we will no longer be able to afford the expense of our chronic disease management," Welker-Hood says. "By 2019, it is expected to be close 20 percent of our GDP - about 3 times that of our peer industrial nations, like Canada, Sweden, Denmark and Germany. Building healthier, more sustainable environments would allow us to reduce the enormous amount of money we pour into continued disease management and critical care, in favor of more proactive measures that stop people getting sick in the first place."

    RTC President Keith Laughlin is excited about the extra dimension that Welker-Hood's appointment adds to the organization's capacity.

    "As Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has matured over the last 25 years, we have continually sought to expand the skills and expertise available on our staff. Bringing Kristen aboard is a perfect example," he says. "She brings a knowledge and experience that will permit us to more effectively make the connection between building trail systems and improving the health of Americans."

    The remarkable convergence of fields - public health, urban planning and transportation - sparked by the unprecedented threats of the obesity epidemic, makes an exciting time for those looking for creative, sustainable solutions. Combining our trail development and planning expertise with the health science experience of Welker-Hood and her peers, RTC is well placed to contribute to those solutions.

    Photo of Dr. Kristen Welker-Hood by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy


  • Money Talks. Now It Walks and Rides, Too.

    Those of us who use trails regularly are aware of their value. It might mean a shorter commute to work, a convenient way to get exercise, or something less definable, the feeling of renewal you get after a long walk or ride.

    But these days, when money is tight and investment in trails and other infrastructure is under threat, all too often our elected officials and administrators want to know how to define the value of trails economically. How do miles of bike paths and walkways equal returns that can be measured in dollars and sense? "Give us some hard numbers," they say.

    Luckily, those numbers are proving fairly easy to find. New research released last month by the University of Cincinnati proves that homebuyers will pay more for houses that are close to trails, increasing property values and in turn boosting the amount of property tax revenue for local governments.

    The research, by planning professor Rainer vom Hofe and economics professor Olivier Parent, studied houses along Ohio's Little Miami Scenic Trail, a78-mile rail-trail that cuts across the northeastern portion of Cincinnati. Parent and vom Hofe found that homebuyers were willing to pay a premium of $9,000 to be within 1,000 feet of access to the trail.

    "A bike trail like this has many types of returns," vom Hofe said in an interview at www.theatlanticcities.com. "Residents can use it as a way to commute, and most people use it for recreation. For local governments, you can make a strong argument that they get back some of the money invested in these public amenities in the form of higher property taxes. We see positive spillover in more densely populated urban areas as well as less densely populated, suburban areas."

    The research used street network distances between residential properties and the closest trail entrance, in addition to standard parameter estimation. The average home studied was about 40 years old and had an average 2,203 square feet of living space. The average price was $263,517.

    "This study estimates some compelling figures that should make any local government dependent on property tax revenue take a second look," says RTC's Research Manager Tracy Hadden Loh. "However, the return on investment the government receives for investing in green, active infrastructure goes far beyond just property values - we need more research measuring the health and mobility benefits of trails in order to completely quantify the total return on federal investment."

    As a planner, vom Hofe says that even amid tough economic times and tough budget decisions by local governments, the research emphasizes that investment in infrastructure and public amenities is a solid investment that will result in a positive return for communities.

    It is not the first time that independent research has quantified the positive impact that trails have on economic activity. A 2008 study by the National Association of Homebuilders found that trails were the number one amenity desired by potential new homebuyers. And trails are one local improvement project that voters consistently support. A recent survey found that 66 percent of voters would support the imposition of additional sales tax if it was used to pay for trails and greenways.

    The need to quantify the benefit of trails is a task the trails community is actively pursuing. American Trails recently hosted a webinar on "Making the Case for Trails in Tight Economic Times," during which the testimony of real estate agents, tourism promoters, planners and small businesspeople all captured the huge role trails play as drivers of economic activity. The evidence is compelling and continues to grow, highlighting the inaccuracy of political claims that trails investment represents "frivolous spending."

    Though the importance of trails to tourism is not a new concept, what is remarkable is the growing relationship of these pathways to real estate and small business development. The Pedal to Properties real estate franchise, which has grown from a handful of clients to 22 agencies in Colorado and California in just a few years, is built around a national trend that shows buyers are placing more importance on shorter commute times and finding a home near urban centers and public transportation. The buying experience even starts with a tour by bicycle.

    On the GAP, the Trail Town Program is helping communities and businesses maximize the economic potential of the trail through grant and loan assistance, business training and technical support. As a result, since 2007 there's been an overall increase of 54 new and expanded trail-serving businesses, creating 83 new jobs in eight communities.

    Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has been at the forefront of this effort. Our groundbreaking surveys of the economic activity of trail users in the Northeast and Midwest paved the way for communities all over America to state the case for trails using data, and dollars.

    It is evidence that may be worth its weight in gold during the coming months, as legislators opposing trails and active transportation use erroneous economic arguments against what has proven to make a lot of economic sense.

    Top and bottom photos by Carl Knoch/RTC.
    Center photo courtesy of Pulte Homes, Issaquah, Wash.



  • Rob Stuart - Citizen Activist, Friend of the Community

    Everyone at Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) was saddened to learn of the recent passing of Rob Stuart, a terrific friend of this organization and of many in the Pennsylvania trails community.

    A passionate and respected citizen activist involved in many causes, including keeping communities safe from gun violence and opposing drilling in the Marcellus Shale, Stuart was well known for his role in opening up the Schuylkill River Park for public use, creating a remarkable gathering place for the people of Philadelphia.

    In convincing CSX, the owners of the railroad corridor along the Schuylkill River, to allow public crossings into the park, Stuart was one of the key figures in the development of the Schuylkill River Trail, which is now one of the most popular and successful trails projects in the nation.

    Stuart's considerable impact on his community was evident in the tributes paid to him by city of Philadelphia elected officials and community leaders. "Rob cared deeply about the city. He was a friend and a supporter," said Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter.

    Stuart's passing is felt keenly here at RTC, especially by those staff members who worked closely with him during the past decade, and considered Stuart a friend as well as a colleague.

    RTC's Kevin Mills' first worked with Rob, and his wife Sarah, 20 years ago. "Rob and Sarah's multi-faceted campaign to convince CSX to enable people to safely cross the tracks to get to the trail showcased Rob's creativity and communications savvy," says Mills. "Throughout his career, he brought strikingly new perspectives to bear to improve communities.  We have lost a very special friend."

    "Rob was a citizen activist who had a talent for seeing a problem in his community and coming up with a creative solution," says RTC President Keith Laughlin. "There is no better example than his successful Schuylkill River Park campaign. At first, the railroad just said 'no.' Rob found a way to get them to change their mind and say 'yes.' "

    A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Saturday, November 12, at Trinity Memorial Church, 22nd and Spruce streets, Philadelphia.

    In lieu of flowers, donations can be sent to benefit a community garden that Stuart helped found: Logan Square Garden Fund at Evolve Foundation, 1 S. Broad St., Suite 1840, Philadelphia 19107.

  • Restoring Historical Rail Stations, Restoring Lost Service

    Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) has been very active of late, defending a number of legislative efforts to reduce or eliminate the federal Transportation Enhancements (TE) program, the largest dedicated source of funding for trails, biking and walking infrastructure.

    One of these efforts, which RTC and our partners were successful in preventing, sought to prohibit investment in, among other things, the rehabilitation of historical transportation buildings. U.S. Senator John McCain's (Ariz.) proposed amendment to House appropriations bill 2112 sought to prohibit any spending of federal money on transportation projects considered by him to be a "low priority." 

    Among the categories Sen. McCain and other TE opponents have mislabeled as frivolous is the restoration of historic transportation buildings. Critics inaccurately say such spending on "museums" has nothing to do with transportation, but a proper examination of these projects reveals these funds have reconnected cities all across America to passenger and freight rail service, and reenergized once contracting community centers.

    In convincing senators that McCain's amendment would have wide-reaching negative impacts, RTC staff pointed out a list of more than 100 projects in 36 states where TE funds have been used to rebuild dilapidated and abandoned railway stations, in both large cities and small townships. The stories of these restoration projects capture the transformative--and by no means frivolous--potential of TE investment. 

    Built in 1912, Union Station in Tampa, Fla., was closed to the public in 1984, as federal investment in highways and air travel reduced support for rail facilities during the preceding decades. Boarded up and uninhabited, water leaked from the roof and plaster fell from the ceiling inside this once iconic building. Nearby businesses had suffered or moved away, with the loss of Amtrak service decimating what was once a busy center of community.

    Thanks to a $2.5 million TE grant, the heritage-listed Union Station was restored in 1998, not only renovating an important part of Florida's architectural history but, significantly, reconnecting Amtrak service and then adding bus, taxi and trolley service. The station now serves more than 100,000 Amtrak passengers each year, and the TE-funded restoration has spurred redevelopment in surrounding areas--and contributed richly to the transportation landscape of the region. 

    In Williamsburg, Va., a TE grant of $550,000 spurred matching investment of more than $760,000 to renovate the railway station once owned by Colonial Williamsburg, transforming it into a dynamic, bustling hub of transportation and tourism.

    The Williamsburg Transportation Center is the only full-service transportation center in the state of Virginia, servicing Amtrak, Greyhound and Trailways Bus Lines, Williamsburg Area Transport, Colonial Rent-a-Car, Yellow Cab of Williamsburg, Colonial Cabs of Williamsburg and Williamsburg Taxi Service.

    In the city of Wharton, Texas, a TE grant of just over $1 million has transformed an old depot-which had been closed to passenger service since 1948-into a transit authority administrative center. The success of the project has sparked a local effort to re-activate the passenger and freight line, saving railroad operators a several hundred-mile detour on journeys to Houston and Galveston.

    "For only $125 million over 20 years, literally hundreds of working rail stations have been rehabilitated and kept operational," wrote RTC President Keith Laughlin in a letter to senators. "Communities nationwide have relied on less than 10 percent of TE funds to recycle valuable yet unused transportation infrastructure to serve functional public transportation needs, thereby boosting local economic development and mobility."

    Want to help RTC and our partners across the country maintain funding for walking, biking and active transportation? It's easy to get involved! Just visit our Action Alert page to find out how you can support a sustainable transportation future in your community.

    Photos of Tampa Union Station before and after its TE-funded restoration, courtesy of Friends of Tampa Union Station.

  • Breaking News: Senate Rejects Amendment to Cut Funding for Trails, Biking and Walking

    Bipartisan support of funding for trails, walking and bicycling continues to grow in response to repeated legislative attacks on the Transportation Enhancements (TE) program.

    Today, by a vote of 60 to 38, the U.S. Senate rejected an amendment by U.S. Senator Rand Paul (Ky.) that would have shifted dedicated funding for walking and biking infrastructure to bridge repair, thus eliminating a hugely popular program that has been shown to improve safety, create jobs and efficient transportation choices for millions of Americans for the past 20 years.

    Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) and our partners argued the amendment posed a false choice between TE and bridge safety, and we helped organize a national sign-on letter to senators encouraging them to vote against Paul’s Senate Amendment 821. (Read the original action alert and watch a video for more background on the issue.)

    “In truth, most states already have funds that they could use for bridge repair, but that instead go for new roadways,” says RTC’s Director of Policy Outreach Kartik Sribarra. “Further, last year, states sent back $530 million in unspent bridge funds. It’s shameful and disingenuous to claim to be promoting safety by pushing to cut funds for trails, walking and bicycling. 47,000 cyclists and pedestrians have died during the past decade, often because we lack the necessary infrastructure for them to be safe.”

    TE funds have substantially decreased these risks, using less than 2 percent of surface transportation funding.

    “An honest prescription for accelerating bridge repair would need to address either the overall level of investment in transportation infrastructure, or the tendency to prioritize new road capacity over maintenance of existing assets, or both,” Sribarra says.

    Thank you to everyone who contacted your senators! It seems like we face a new legislative attack on TE each week, but with your voices and backing, we’re able to defend this tremendous program, the largest source of funding for trails, walking and bicycling.

  • Rail-with-Trail a Natural Fit for Busy Cities

    Though it is true that the rail-trail movement in America was born from a need to better utilize out-of-service rail corridors, much has changed since the pioneering railbanking legislation was passed more than 25 years ago.

    The first rail-trails were recreational pathways through largely wild and rural areas. But now, rail-trails have spread in both their mileage and influence, to form bustling commuter routes in big cities, and avenues to connect inner-city residents with open spaces, and each other. This evolution of rail-trails has paralleled the development of a more dynamic understanding of urban growth, and a focus among planners in recent years on density and connectivity as keys to building more sustainable human habitats.

    All of these themes came together last week in Washington, D.C., for Rail~Volution 2011, a series of workshops and symposiums on the role of transit, and transit-oriented development, in shaping urban landscapes that are socially, environmentally and economically more intuitive.

    Though at first look it might not appear that Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) would be a natural partner to these discussions, given that many of our projects rely on the abandonment of rail service, in fact a growing focus of our work these days is on trails that run parallel to, and complement, existing transit systems.

    Rail-with-trail projects combine the benefits of walking and biking pathways with convenient access to urban transit. With the number of abandonments steadily decreasing since the mid-1990s, and cities looking for creative transportation designs for booming populations, rail-with-trail is often a cost-effective and efficient solution.

    RTC's 2009 study of rails-with-trails in California found that rail-with-trail mileage has increased fivefold in the past decade, up from 11.4 miles in 2000 to 60 miles by the end of 2009.

    In the D.C. area, the Metropolitan Branch Trail, which runs for eight miles next to Metro's Red Line, MARC commuter service and active CSX freight and Amtrak lines, allows people to commute by bike or foot to the heart of the nation's capital from Silver Spring and Takoma Park, among a number of burgeoning neighborhoods.

    Kelly Pack, RTC's director of trail development, is involved with promoting use of the Met Branch Trail and led a workshop at this year's Rail~Volution. She says that rail lines were built to provide a direct route between important residential or commercial centers, and are therefore perfect avenues for trails to follow.

    "Cities these days are putting more effort into their pedestrian and bike networks. But at the same time, urban space is getting tight," Pack says. "Existing rail lines are natural corridors. More often than not the right-of-way is wide enough to accommodate a trail, they are built at grade, and they are already going where people want to go."

    Pack says that a potential sticking point in building a trail next to a rail line can be the railroad owners' liability concerns--if anyone is injured or killed on the tracks, the owner can be sued. However, the evidence of rail-with-trail projects tells us that building a dedicated biking and walking trail next to a rail line, with appropriate barrier and safety precautions, cuts the likelihood of such incidents to almost zero.

    "Reassuring rail operators that they are in fact reducing their exposure is one of the main challenges for rail-with-trail proponents," Pack says.

    Another is state legislation. Some states have updated their State Recreation Use Statutes to explicitly include railroads. This measure provides another layer of liability protection to the railroads. In states such as Virginia and Maine, innovative legislation has extended the protection inherent in recreational use statutes to the owners of railroads. In the same way that a farmer is not liable if a mountain biker breaks her leg on a section of the farm's right-of-way, so too are rail owners protected in case of accidents on a rail-with-trail. The more legislation there is like this, the more railroad companies and transit agencies will be open to trail proposals.

    In California, there are at least five more rails-with-trails in various stages of development, including major projects such as the Coastal and Inland Rail Trails in San Diego County, the Coastal Rail Trail in Santa Cruz County, and the SMART corridor in Sonoma and Marin counties.

    These urban pathways will soon join the Met Branch Trail, the Connecticut Riverwalk and Bikeway in Massachusetts, the Springwater Corridor in Oregon, and dozens more rails-with-trails across the country, in providing millions of Americans with convenient and safe access to an efficient active transportation network.

    Photo of the Metropolitan Branch Trail (top) by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

    Photo of the Martin Luther King Promenade in California courtesy of TrailLink.com.

  • Experience Fall Color in California on the Bizz Johnson Trail

    Fall is a great time for a rail-trail adventure. Right across the country, foliage is breaking out in the colors of the season, humid summers are giving way to air cool and fresh, and campers are making the most of the great outdoors before winter settles in.

    The Bizz Johnson National Recreation Trail, a member of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's Rail-Trail Hall of Fame, is particularly spectacular this time of year, as the changing aspens, oaks and cottonwoods light up the area with brilliant autumn colors. The trail towns of Susanville and Westwood, and the Lassen Land and Trails Trust, are making the most of the trail's considerable draw, setting up a bike shuttle bus to get riders to and from the various trailheads.

    A special Fall Color Ride bike ride will be held this Saturday, October 29. Though the morning outbound shuttle at 8:30 a.m. from Susanville to Westwood is fully booked for this event--70 riders on the two outbound buses--a return bus shuttle at the end of the day will transport people from Susanville RR Depot back to Westwood to retrieve their vehicles.

    Riders can drive to Westwood, bike from Westwood north up Lassen County Road A-21 five miles to the Mason Station Trailhead (western end of the Bizz Johnson Trail) and then ride the trail back to Susanville.  At the end of their ride, cyclists can load their bikes on Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service trucks and trailers that are supporting the popular Fall Color Ride, and then ride the bus back to Westwood to retrieve their vehicles. 

    Lassen Rural Bus (530.252.7433) now runs regular bus service between Susanville, Westwood and Chester on Saturdays, with the bus departing from the historical Susanville Railroad Depot Trailhead/Visitor Center at 8:30 am. Buses provide access to a number of trailheads for 7-, 18- and 30-mile rides back to Susanville. Bus users should arrive by 8 a.m. to make sure they're ready to load their bikes when the bus arrives at 8:30.

    For more information on riding the Bizz Johnson National Recreation Trail, visit the Lassen Land and Trails Trust or phone 530.257.3252.

    Photo courtesy of Stan Bales/Bureau of Land Management.

  • RTC Provides Strong Voice for Transportation Funding

    Two weeks ago, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) received notice that U.S. Senator John McCain (Ariz.) was planning to introduce an amendment to an appropriations bill that would strike at the enormously successful Transportation Enhancements (TE) program. In addition to being our nation's primary funding source for trails, walking and bicycling, TE is also a critical funding source for historic preservation and environmental mitigation related to transportation.

    Working with a diverse coalition of partners, RTC helped defeat Sen. McCain's proposed amendment and protect TE. But his attack was neither the first nor last to the TE program.

    In September, Senator Tom Coburn (Okla.) sought to remove the federal set-aside for TE projects. A late compromise helped preserve TE intact for another six months, but new congressional threats are looming. 

    Anticipating a year of stern challenges, RTC continues to work at the forefront of efforts to protect funding for active transportation. Our policy and outreach staff are aggressively responding to these threats to TE, stressing the remarkable economic, social and environmental value of non-motorized infrastructure, and speaking up for a transportation future that allows people to get around through a variety of means--whether on foot, bicycle, car or public transit.  

    Part of this work involves correcting misinformation and spreading the word about the countless benefits that TE brings to communities across the country. On Monday, October 24, the Washington Post ran a feature on the fight over TE on Capitol Hill, and RTC's Vice President of Program Kevin Mills spoke in defense of TE. "They think the only federal role is interstate highways, but virtually every community out there wants a balanced transportation program," said Mills. (Read the full story in the Post)

    Want to get involved and stay on top of urgent advocacy news surrounding TE and other trail-related issues? Then sign up to receive action alerts and help promote and protect trails, walking and bicycling! Your voice in support of these programs can have a powerful impact on the way our communities look and move in the coming decades.

    Image from the Washington Post, October 24, 2011.

  • Florida Rail-Trails a Model for America's Great Outdoors

    Launched in 2010, America's Great Outdoors (AGO) initiative represents a unique effort by the federal government to reconnect an increasingly urban and sedentary American population with the nation's parks, trails and open spaces.

    In the past 12 months, AGO leaders have been visiting sites all over the country to learn about how various municipalities and recreation groups are promoting outdoor recreation and learning in their regions--a listening tour that took in a range of landscapes, from urban high schools to protected wilderness. The result was one of the largest conservation-related public dialogues in our nation's history.

    A few weeks ago, about 18 months since AGO was launched, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar released a progress report heralding some of the most successful efforts to promote healthy recreation and outdoor tourism across America. AGO findings will come as no surprise to supporters of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy: trails are one of the most critical pieces to encouraging more Americans to be active and to explore their natural surroundings.

    The developing 50-mile East Central Regional Rail-Trail (ECRRT) in central Florida was one of the projects singled out in Sec. Salazar's report. RTC's Florida field office was instrumental in the early stages of the ECRRT, which was purchased by the state of Florida Office of Greenways and Trails in 2007 and is the longest out-of-service rail line ever purchased in Florida.

    RTC's involvement with the ECRRT goes back almost 20 years, during which time we worked closely with the railroad that owned the line, as well as the local agencies applying for funding to purchase the corridor.

    Volusia County is currently constructing the first of what will be a number of segments, as that county, under the leadership of County Chair Frank Bruno and Vice Chair Pat Northey, continues to build a strong and connected trails landscape. When completed, the ECRRT will link a number of urban centers with rural areas, providing a pathway for both commuters and recreational users.

    A press release issued by Sec. Salazar's office last week stated that "while Interior cannot commit to federal financial support for the projects identified in the report due to budgetary constraints, Secretary Salazar is committed to doing everything possible to advance each project in the coming year through whatever means available."

    RTC's long history of involvement with trail-blazing efforts in Florida was also evident in Salazar's heralding of another trails project: the Shingle Creek Trail. RTC is part of a multi-jurisdictional design team working on the Shingle Creek Trail, which, when completed, will stretch 32 miles through one of Florida's most urban regions, from the Wekiva River in Seminole County to Lake Tohopekaliga in Osceola County. It will also link to the East Coast Greenway, a 3,000-mile network of multi-use trails and greenways along the Atlantic Coast from Canada to Key West, Fla.

    Completing the Shingle Creek Trail will increase access to the river and provide recreational opportunities in urban Central Florida, a perfect example of why trails are a lynchpin of the AGO's effort, which connects recreational and transportation goals with key public health challenges.

    "With children spending half as much time outside as their parents did, and with many Americans living in urban areas without safe access to green space, connecting to the outdoors is more important than ever for the economic and physical health of our communities," says Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, in an introduction to this month's report.

    Other trails projects noted in the AGO progress report include the Jordan River Parkway, a paved trail that crosses three counties and runs more than 50 miles from Utah Lake to the Great Salt Lake, the Colorado River Heritage Greenway Park and Trails, and the Three Rivers Greenway around Columbia, S.C.

    For more information on the AGO initiative, visit americasgreatoutdoors.gov.

    Photo by Boyd Loving/Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

  • Signature New Hampshire Rail-Trail Continues Expansion

    The Northern Rail Trail is already one of the most well-used and well-loved trails in New Hampshire. Combining sections in Merrimack and Grafton counties, the pathway runs for 46 miles through forests and valleys, past small towns and lakes, and is a huge draw for cyclists, hikers, horseback riders, skiers and snowmobilers from all across the region.

    And it's only getting better.

    Friends of the Northern Rail Trail in Merrimack County (FNRT-MC) this week announced the opening of an additional 2.5 miles of the Northern Rail Trail at the trail's eastern end in West Franklin. The new section of trail was made possible by a recent New Hampshire Recreational Trail Program grant, assistance from the city of Franklin and lots of volunteer help. This addition brings FNRT-MC closer to its ultimate goal of extending the trail southeast to the city of Concord.

    An important part of the state's outdoor tourism landscape, the Northern Rail Trail was also featured in a book written by Dr. Charles Martin, a long-time friend and supporter of RTC. New Hampshire Rail Trails catalogues New Hampshire's diverse rail-trail offerings and sheds light on what Martin says are often little-known resources of the region. (In 2008, the New Hampshire TV station WMUR produced a video on Martin and the state's rail-trails as part of its New Hampshire Chronicle series.)

    Martin has worked with RTC in the Northeast for many years. He is widely recognized as the go-to source of information on the landscape and history of rail-trails and railroads in the state. "I wish we had advocates as strong as Charles Martin in every state in the region," says Carl Knoch, manager of trail development for RTC's Northeast Regional Office. "He's helped organize a number of rail-trail groups in the state."

    Knoch credits Martin with founding the New Hampshire Rail Trails Coalition, of which he is now president. Dr. Martin was also instrumental in organizing the first-ever New Hampshire rail-trail conference.

    Now in its fifth year, the Statewide Rail Trails Conference will be held in Concord, N.H., on November 12 this year. No doubt the extension of the Northern Rail Trail will be a subject of proud reflection.

    Photo of the Northern Rail Trail by Stephen Robinson/TrailLink.com. 

  • May Theilgaard Watts, a Rail-Trail Visionary from Illinois

    At Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's (RTC) 25th Anniversary celebration earlier this month, we honored a group of men and women--the inaugural Doppelt Family Rail-Trail Champions--who have made a remarkable contribution to the rail-trail movement during the past quarter century. We will be posting a blog story on each of the honorees during the coming weeks. Today we tell the inspiring story of a true pioneer, May Theilgaard Watts, who was honored posthumously for her role in the formation of the Illinois Prairie Path in the 1960s. 

    May Theilgaard Watts was a writer, illustrator, naturalist, scientist and teacher. Her determination that Americans stay connected to their natural landscape in a time of increasing urbanization was the catalyst that led to the formation of the Illinois Prairie Path.

    Watts' vision of recycling out-of-service rail lines for recreational use was remarkable for being far ahead of its time. Heralded as one of the first successful rail-trail conversions in the United States, the Prairie Path laid the blueprint for thousands of rail-trails that would follow.

    Inspired by the public footpaths of Britain, and the Appalachian Trail here in America, Watts believed Midwestern residents needed similar recreational corridors. Her 1963 letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune implored, "if we have courage and foresight... we can create from this strip a proud resource."

    "We are human beings," she wrote. "We are able to walk upright on two feet. We need a foot­path. Right now there is a chance for Chicago and its suburbs to have a footpath, a long one."

    After eight years of contentious meetings between Watts and the towns of Wheaton and Glen Ellyn (which sought the right-of-way as valu­able parking space), U.S. Secretary of the Interior Rogers C.B. Morton designated the Illinois Prairie Path as the second of 27 new National Recreation Trails. In the designation, Watts was honored "for her outstanding efforts toward establishment of the Illinois Prairie Path."

    The daughter of Danish immigrants, Watts grew up in Chicago. She would find her life's calling in protecting and promoting nature. In addition to her work at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill., Watts authored several books and scientific studies that helped nonscientists interpret the landscape. Her 1957 Reading the Landscape was widely read and used by educators for decades. Watts described places ranging from backyard gardens to the Indiana Dunes and the Rocky Mountains. Her writing and her legacy remain loved and revered today, 36 years after her death.

    The $1,000 pass-through grant awarded in Watts' honor was dedicated to the trail she helped inspire and build: the Illinois Prairie Path. The funds will assist the nonprofit Illinois Prairie Path corporation and its volunteers in working to maintain, protect, enhance and promote the trail, which spans approximately 61 miles in Cook, DuPage and Kane Counties in northeastern Illinois.

    Stay tuned to the RTC TrailBlog to read more inspiring stories of the men and women who helped shape our trails landscape.

    Photo courtesy of Isabel Wasson/Wikipedia Commons.

  • B-Line Rail-Trail Helps Pull Downtown Bloomington, Ind., Together

    By Herb Hiller

    Where a rail line once poured raw materials into downtown Bloomington, Ind., a trail now pours cyclists. From downtown, same as ever, finished goods roll out and into the world. What used to be furniture and cut limestone have become college grads testing their futures. What else might you expect from Bloomington, a city of 80,000, where more than half the population are the students, scholars and staff at the main campus of Indiana University?

    Each year during Move-in Week, some 10,000 freshmen file in, fanning out with their ambitions four years later. Except that not all 10,000 a year leave.

    Many of those who stay in Bloomington embrace a civic outlook that ties quality of life to economic development. They see a city government that values the benefits of trails--trails that supply safe paths to school and family fitness, trails that rank high when the time comes to acquire a new place to live. In Bloomington, when trails go in, houses follow. A few corn silos and barns remain at the last close-in farms, giving way to subdivision houses with paths that drop from hillside doors to rail-replacing trail.

    Bloomington trails mostly date from 2000. The Wapehani Mountain Bike Trail offers five miles of single-track adventure six miles southwest of town. A mile of rail-with-trail connects affordable student housing to campus. Newest is the .6-mile Jackson Creek Trail that links two eastside schools.

    What Bloomington Mayor Mark Kruzan calls the "most significant economic development project on the city's agenda. . . monumental in its scope and importance," is the multi-modal, 12-foot-wide B-Line Trail. Starting at little more than a half-mile three years ago, the B-Line's latest extension, completed September this year, carries the trail a total of 3.1 miles.

    The trail juxtaposes city and country. It's textured with bridges and interpretive signs that spool our way through time. So much that everyone likes about this city happened along this route. No matter how smooth your tires, history rumbles beneath.

    Bike and trail culture flourish. The Oscar-winning Breaking Away from 1979 endowed Bloomington as a nationally iconic cycling city. Bloomington Velo News blogs about re-showings as well as about Bike Week in May, the Hilly Hundred in fall, the annual downtown criterium and regional tournaments hosted by the Bike Polo Club. Two or three downtown shops rent bikes. The Little 500 is the biggest intramural event on the IU campus, and America's largest collegiate bike race.

    Look through trail master plans of the city and surrounding Monroe County and you find trails extending big loops to the northeast, to the south and shafts of trail across county lines You grasp how Mayor Kruzan's vision suffuses an entire county's outlook. A hundred additional trail miles will help renew rural towns and capture new green tourists.

    Two sections of trail linger moist in memory. The B-Line first slopes south with a mile banked on either side by outcroppings of limestone, mornings slick with dewy grass. Maple forest shadows the way. Locomotive engineers would have gently braked their way down, likely long and fondly remembering this sylvan grade. 

    Limestone mills that clustered along the tracks are gone, but hardly the limestone. Chunks lie in a remaining yard as they once did at almost a dozen mills ready for loading onto freight cars bound far and wide. Demand followed the Chicago Fire of 1871 that made flame-scorning limestone the choice for monumental structures--over time for the National Cathedral, the Empire State Building and the Pentagon, while also advancing Beaux Arts style in America. The Campus as a Work of Art by author Thomas Gaines 20 years ago named the limestone-prevalent IU campus "one of the five most beautiful in America." Downtown that once clamored with citizen-annoying stone-cutting machines has given way to student-pleasing finished stone seating (as well as iron street furniture) for trailside socializing.

    Here you feel the city-anchoring power of this trail. A small downtown cabinet business less than a century ago grew to boast itself the largest furniture company in the world. The Showers Brothers Company factory's pinnacled roof today houses trailside offices of Bloomington and Monroe County. Bloomingfoods has opened its third natural foods market a block south.

    Fountain Square surrounds the old county courthouse, its perimeter shops almost all mom-and-pops, including Book Corner with its 5,000 magazines, and several of Bloomington's nearly 100 distinct restaurants. IU student-pianist Hoagy Carmichael and touring cornet legend-in-the-making Bix Beiderbecke made 1924 jazz history by performing together here and on campus.

    An historical sign a block off the trail marks the 1820 site of Indiana Seminary that became IU. 

    Art shows up everywhere trailside. Fanciful oversized cut metal fish flash their colors atop trailside poles; cafes alongside display their menus on colorfully chalked boards. Custom-designed bike racks show the B-Line logo, and there's the art-splashed WonderLab Science Museum for kids. A heavy iron trestle, topped by stunning blue geometric superstructure, carries the trail from downtown over four traffic lanes.

    A roundabout at the B-Line's south end connects with the 2.3-mile Clear Creek Trail that heads north-northwest to a trailhead alongside a busy road. The trail meanders out in the open among subdivisions and still-open fields, so that anyone who rides outbound from town will also want to ride both back again to savor the B-Line's rich palette the other way.

    South across Country Club Road, finely crushed gravel composes the second memorable section of trail, easy to ride on all but the thinnest tires. Its some two miles channel through forest that comfortably shades the trail where even summer afternoon temperatures drop a cooling eight to 10 degrees. Cyclists appearing around curves hear the phantom squeal of steel wheels against steel track. Clear Creek itself dribbles south from the roundabout beneath the old Harris Ford Suspension Bridge, relocated here after 113 years of service nearby.

    For a mile, the trail continues rideable though narrowing path. The way stays wet after rain. Roots and flinty outcroppings turn the path slick and dangerous, enough to turn anyone back. That's not to say you can't--or won't--return.

    Herb Hiller is at work on a book on unmarketed travel, of which Bloomington will serve as a chapter. He is Florida's Trail Advocate of the Year.  

    Photos (top to bottom, left to right): downtown Bloomington, courtesy of the city of Bloomington; the B-Line Trail, courtesy of the city of Bloomington; the B-Line Trail, by Herb Hiller; art along the trail, by Herb Hiller; new B-Line Bridge over Grimes Lane. 

  • The Effort to Build Community Landscapes That Work for America

    This year, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy was invited by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to contribute to its Be Active Your Way Blog, a discussion between public health groups on healthy lifestyles as a key element of combating non-communicable diseases. Here is our most recent post, which focuses on the political challenges of enabling walking and biking.

    To health professionals, planners and transportation experts, active transportation (i.e. walking and biking as an alternative to car travel) is a no-brainer. Communities that facilitate non-motorized modes as safe and convenient options for getting from A to B simply function better. They have less pollution, their population is healthier, downtown business areas are more vibrant, and real estate values are stronger as their neighborhoods reflect what more Americans are demanding of their environments these days: diversity of transportation choices.

    Not only that, but these alternative options make economic sense, too. A mile of paved trail can cost the same as just a few yards of urban four-lane road, not to mention the associated savings of non-motorized transportation stemming from reduced oil consumption and spending on reactive health care. That's why building environments that encourage walking and bicycling is a key part of the National Physical Activity Plan, and a major component of its strategies.

    Unfortunately, despite the overwhelming support of the public health community, local planners and officials, businesspeople and residents, there are still some political and financial barriers to building these kinds of environments.

    For example, the Transportation Enhancements (TE) program was recently an agenda item during government budget planning. TE is the nation's largest funding source for trails, walking and bicycling. Working with numerous partners, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) led an effort to ensure our elected leaders knew how important walking and biking options were to their constituents. In the end, vital active transportation programs like TE were preserved intact.

    RTC knows it is important to secure adequate funding for active transportation into the future. So, what we know to be a public health issue--the effort to increase physical activity in our everyday lives--is also an effort of political will. In an era of fiscal constraint, presenting economic benefits could have the most weight when discussing this issue with policymakers. With walking and biking, that's an easy argument to make.

    Biking and walking infrastructure account for less than two percent of the entire federal surface transportation budget, yet they represent 12 percent of all trips taken in America. And trail construction projects have been shown to create more jobs, and more local jobs, for every $1 spent than road construction--a smart financial investment and good health policy.

    The voice of the health community, which understands so clearly that investing in walking and biking could translate into a significant reduction in our health care expenditure, adds yet another dimension to a case that is already hard to dismiss.

    The great work being done through the National Physical Activity Plan will only be realized as health gains if we are able to maintain funding and support for facilities that encourage biking, walking, and active ways of getting around.

    How will you encourage the funding of facilities that promote active transportation?

    Want to know more about how RTC is working to build a better landscape for walking and biking? Contact Kartik Sribarra at kartik@railstotrails.org

    Photos by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. 

  • Sec. LaHood Says Rail-Trails Are Key to Public Health

    RTC was very pleased to have U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood attend our 25th anniversary reception in downtown Washington, D.C., earlier this month. Sec. LaHood has long been a vocal supporter of rail-trails and active transportation, and we were proud to honor him as one of the 25 Doppelt Family Rail-Trail Champions, along with a diverse group of community leaders, volunteers, elected officials and municipal staff from 17 states across America.

    Sec. LaHood was also the evenings' keynote speaker, and his comments about the importance of trails to the future of America gave us all great reason for optimism.

    Continuing a growing shift in public health strategy toward active transportation as a crucial aspect of preventative health care, Sec. LaHood said that encouraging more biking and walking is one of the most important things we can do in the nation's battle against obesity and related illness. He said the rail-trail program "has done more for health care than anything we've ever done in America. Rail-trails have contributed so much to people's good health over the last 25 years--also preventing heart disease, and providing the kinds of opportunities people have looked for, for a long, long time."

    As a member of Congress from his home state of Illinois, Sec. LaHood was instrumental in the creation of the Rock Island Trail State Park in Peoria. And as Secretary of Transportation, he has helped inaugurate bike share programs in Washington, D.C., and Denver, Co., as well as offer high-profile and influential national leadership in support of trails. 

    Sec. LaHood is perhaps best remembered by active transportation advocates for his impassioned speech on the floor of Congress in 2003, when he defended the Transportation Enhancements (TE) program--the largest source of funding for trails, walking and bicycling facilities--which continues to face legislative threats in the current Congress.

    RTC President Keith Laughlin describes Sec. LaHood as "a strong and consistent voice on behalf of trails funding. He has been the best rail-trail champion we have ever had within the executive branch of government. His commitment to our cause is unwavering."

    Paying homage to his fellow Rail-Trail Champions, and other community volunteers across the nation, Sec. LaHood said their work was having a significant, and measurable, impact on the landscape that would long be appreciated. He said his experiences walking and riding along the Rock Island, Illinois Prairie Path and C&O Canal towpath convinced him that trails were the key to building a healthier, happier America.

    "All along the way, you know what I see?" he asked those assembled. "Families, kids, people having fun, and also getting good exercise."

    The 2011 Doppelt Family Rail-Trail Champions represented 25 communities in 17 states across America. We will be posting a blog story on each of the honorees during the coming weeks, so stay tuned to the RTC TrailBlog to read these inspiring stories of the men and women who have helped shape our trails landscape.

    Photo of Sec. LaHood by Scott Stark.  


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